Life begins at 40 ... or even 50 ...

Luke G. Williams
14/12/2016 8:53am

As Bernard Hopkins’ incredible career finally draws to a close, Luke G. Williams takes a stroll through boxing history to examine boxers who shone past their 40th or even 50th birthdays …

When Muhammad Ali regained the heavyweight title from George Foreman in 1974 the legendary BBC commentator Harry Carpenter declared breathlessly: “Oh my god, he’s won the title back at 32!”, thus suggesting the idea of a heavyweight boxer thriving past the age of 30 was somewhat unusual.

Truth be told, Carpenter had lost perspective a little in the heat of the moment. After all there were many heavyweight champions before Ali who campaigned successfully well into their 30s - Joe Louis, for example, defended his heavyweight title for the last time in 1948, aged 34, and Jersey Joe Walcott was famously crowned champ in 1951 aged 37, the same age at which Jack Johnson and Jess Willard both lost the title. Ali himself would go on to win the title a third time aged 36 with a victory against Leon Spinks.

However, although there are numerous cases of boxers winning world championships in their 30s, and nearly as many sad tales of former greats fighting unsuccessfully or embarrassingly into their 40s, the number of pugilists who have won or held world titles beyond the age of 40 is far smaller. Meanwhile, no boxer has ever won or held a world title past the age of 50.

In recent years, middleweight and light heavyweight great Bernard Hopkins, has come to be regarded by many as the greatest veteran boxer of all time.

‘The Alien’ is officially the oldest world championship titlist in boxing history, courtesy of his points victory against Beibut Shumenov to unify the WBA and IBF titles when he was 49 years old. Hopkins would lose these titles against Sergey Kovalev just a couple of months before his 50th birthday.

Remarkably, the Philadelphian phenomenon’s professional career will only finally draw to a close on Saturday when the now 51-year-old competes in a non-title bout against Joe Smith Jr.

Hopkins’ longevity is particularly staggering when you consider the fact that by the time he was 17 he had already been stabbed three times and sent to prison after a string of convictions, including for armed robbery.

At this stage, it looked unlikely he would ever reach 50, let alone still be competing as an elite level athlete at such an age.

Despite a lengthy reign as IBF middleweight champion, which began in 1995, Hopkins’ greatest achievements came in his mid-30s and beyond. He memorably unified the WBC, WBA and IBF straps with victories against Keith Holmes and Felix Trinidad and would defend the unified title six times, including an unforgettable KO of Oscar De La Hoya to add the WBO belt to his CV, while also setting a divisional record of 20 successful title defences.

After turning 40, Hopkins successfully defended his title against Howard Eastman, but a pair of losses to Jermain Taylor saw most people ready to write his career obituaries. However, a move to light-heavy revitalised ‘the Executioner’s career and he went on annex further belts at 175lbs with victories against Antonio Tarver, Jean Pascal, Tavoris Cloud and Shumenov.

Although the likes of Joe Calzaghe and Chad Dawson eked out decision victories against the forty-something Hopkins, his achievement in picking up light-heavy belts at the ages of 42, 46, 48 and 49 is truly remarkable.

As well as his supreme mastery of technique, perhaps the key to Hopkins' longevity was self-control. "When you look at the things I do," he once commented. "The lifestyle and the discipline, you would say I'm preserved ... well-kept."

An expert in nutrition, who swears by boiled beets and buffalo meat, Hopkins also indulged in frequent facials, manicures and pedicures to keep him as young as possible in both body, mind and spirit.

Although Hopkins smashed George Foreman’s record as boxing’s oldest ever world champion, ‘Big George’ probably remains the most famous fighter to win a world title in his 40s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days." In boxing terms, we can substitute Foreman' for 'New York', for no pugilist has ever enjoyed such a dramatic 'second act' as the 'Punchin' Preacher'.

In his youthful pomp, Foreman was one of the most feared heavyweights ever; a big, bad bogeyman who bludgeoned his way to 40-0 and the heavyweight championship while barely breaking into a sweat and wearing an omnipresent scowl.

However, Foreman's world fell apart in 1974 when he was on the receiving end of the magical fists and unparalleled mind games of Muhammad Ali in Zaire. In 1977, after a loss to Jimmy Young, Foreman quit boxing and found God.

Ten years later, needing money to support the youth centre he had founded, a tubby and now 38-year-old Foreman risked becoming a laughing stock when he launched an improbable comeback.

Despite widespread scepticism, he strung together a 24-fight winning streak (admittedly against largely weak opposition) that earned him a 1991 shot against then heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield. The 42-year-old Foreman's brave, but ultimately futile, challenge against the 'Real Deal' in a contest billed as ‘The Battle of the Ages’, won him both affection and admiration.

But the Foreman story was not over. He kept fighting and three-and-a-half years later, new champ Michael Moorer chose him as a lucrative and apparently ‘low-risk’ opponent for his first defence of the crown.

In round ten of a contest he was losing, Foreman detonated an explosive short right-hand on Moorer's unexposed chin, the champion crumbled to the canvas and, at the age of 45 and a full two decades after losing the title to Ali, Foreman was once again World Heavyweight Champion.

It's an achievement that is so staggering that twenty years later, it still seems unbelievable. Foreman once claimed: "you've got to make a statement with your life. Otherwise you are just existing." These words weren't just empty rhetoric - Foreman lived them.

Ironically enough, the man who succeeded Foreman as lineal world heavyweight champion, Shannon Briggs, is himself now 44 and still boxing, with a mandated shot at the WBA ‘regular’ title looking imminent.

Pre-Foreman, probably the most famous veteran boxer was ‘Old’ Archie Moore, as Muhammad Ali once labelled him.

‘Ancient Archie’ was a fistic phenomenon who fought in every decade from the 30s to the 60s. To put his longevity into further perspective, Moore was born during World War I and didn't retire until John F. Kennedy was President.

His first contest took place in 1935 and for years he was one of the most avoided light-heavyweights around - indeed he didn't get a world title shot until 1952, when he was already 36. ‘Old Mongoose’ duly beat Joey Maxim to be recognised as world champ and, despite the odd sojourn as a heavyweight, he was still the light heavy title holder up to and including his 1961 victory against Guilio Rinaldi, by which time he was 44. Of his incredible longevity, Moore once quipped: "I'm like the drunk in the bar who wants just one more for the road."

Another forty-something light heavyweight champion was the legendary and often under-rated Bob Fitzsimmons. ‘Freckled Fitz’ was 40 years old and widely known as ‘The Grand Old Man of the Ring’ when he outpointed 26-year-old George Gardner in 1903 to add the light heavyweight title to previous reigns at middleweight and heavyweight. After a hard-fought 20 rounds, an elated Fitzsimmons told reporters: “Pretty good showing for an old man, eh?

In more recent times, Thulani ‘Sugar Boy’ Malinga achieved the notable feat of winning world titles twice in his forties. The South African was 40 when he dethroned Nigel Benn as WBC super middleweight champ in 1996 and a week past his 42nd birthday when he relieved Britain’s Robin Reid of the same belt in 1997.

Then there was Vitali Klitschko, whose second reign as WBC heavyweight champion began when he was 37 and saw him defend his title nine times in all, including three successful defences past the age of 40, against Tomasz Adamek, Dereck Chisora and Manuel Charr. When Vitali's brother Wladimir attempts to topple Anthony Joshua in April he too will be past the age of 40.

bill richmond 3However, I would argue that, despite their amazing achievements, the greatest ‘post-40’ boxer of all time is neither Hopkins, Foreman, Fitzsimmons, Moore, Malinga or either Klitschko, but a bare knuckle pugilist from the sport’s early days, namely the American born former slave Bill Richmond (1763-1829, pictured left).

The first black sportsman to make a major impact in any organised sport, Richmond did not even begin boxing seriously until he was already in his 40s. The ‘Black Terror’’s first major prize fight was in 1804; in an echo of Hopkins’ professional debut defeat against Clinton Mitchell, Richmond was beaten by George Maddox in nine rounds. However, thereafter he only ever lost one more contest, finishing with an impressive career record of 17-2. Of course, the sort of medical and nutritional information available in the 21st century, which has helped boxers such as Hopkins prolong their careers, simply didn't exist in the Georgian era.

As Georgian writer William Hazlitt put it, the "whole art of training" in bare-knuckle days consisted of "two things" - "exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise, repeated alternately and without end".

Without the benefits of vitamin supplements, body fat reports, and 'super foods' to aid him, Richmond kept himself in condition through sheer bloody-minded dedication and the near elimination of alcohol from his diet.

Although he enjoyed the odd glass of drink, Richmond was uncommonly abstemious, a particularly impressive feat when you consider he was a pub landlord for several years and that many of his prize-fighting contemporaries - Jem Belcher, Henry Pearce and Tom Molineaux among them - died early and alcohol-induced deaths.

In contrast, when Richmond was past his 50th birthday, famed boxing writer Pierce Egan observed that while "other pugilists have long previously retired from the scenes of action, the spirits of RICHMOND seem in such trim, that, with all the ardency of youth, he is still 'eager for the fray.'"

To display such self-control in an age of excess marks Richmond out as an exceptional man. Furthermore, unlike Hopkins (whose last significant victory to date, against Shumenov, came aged 49) or Foreman (45 when he beat Moorer, 48 when he beat Lou Savarese in his last defence of the lineal heavyweight title), Richmond achieved two notable victories in his 50s.

In May 1814 he defeated Jack Davis in 13 rounds, while in August 1815 he secured arguably the best win of his career, a 23-round triumph against highly-rated Tom Shelton, a pugilist half his age.

No other boxer in the long history of the sport has achieved two victories against well-regarded contenders when in their 50s. No wonder that Egan was moved to write, after Richmond's triumph against Shelton, that "the older he grows, the better pugilist he proves himself".

When you take into account the fact that in Georgian England, the average life expectancy was somewhere between 40 and 47 years, Richmond’s success in winning major bouts in his 50s is even more incredible.

Indeed, after his defeat against Tom Cribb in 1805, Richmond went unbeaten for the rest of his career – a nine-fight streak that extended from his next contest in 1808 until his aforementioned victory against Shelton in 1815 and a street fight victory against top contender Jack Carter in 1818 – a run that you can argue should have earned Richmond recognition as English champion. When he savagely KO’d Carter with a lethal right hand, Bill was an incredible 55 years old.

So while Richmond was never regarded as champion, he has a good case to be recognised as the premier pound for pound pugilist in England, and thus the world, between 1808 and 1818 - a period when he was aged between 45 and 55.
That’s an achievement that may never be matched.

Although Bernard Hopkins still has time to make a comeback, of course …

The life of Bill Richmond is examined in Luke G. Williams' Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world's first black sporting superstar, published by Amberley